EVERY road sings its own tune. Route 66 is a classic, sometimes raucous ditty from Chicago to L.A.; Highway 1 a twisty ballad to the voluptuous California coast; and U.S. 395 a mandolin-driven ode to the West that evokes images of cowboy boots and roadside diners.
Route 395 is our mother road. Its two-lane panoramas of the Eastern Sierra -- especially from Lone Pine to Mono Lake -- are an invitation to shift into a simpler time. The miles are marked by a beef jerky shack, a Dutch-style bakery, a herd of grazing elk, a courthouse that dates to the Civil War and a snowcapped mountain range born in the Jurassic.
And this time of year, less than a week before trout season begins (Saturday), 395 is the gateway to the state's premier fishing lakes and streams.
In late March -- well before the anglers, the peak baggers, the photographers and the Tahoe-bound tourists hit the road -- I took a few days to explore the character, the vistas and the fishing holes of this backcountry treasure. These are a few of my snapshots.
1. Whitney Portal
The two-lane paved road winds and climbs past desert sage, gray rock formations and deep green pine forests. I leaned forward and looked through the car's windshield at the famed peak. From the road, the summit -- at 14,495 feet, the tallest peak in the Lower 48 -- looks close enough to hike in a couple of hours. That's the appeal -- and hazard -- of Mt. Whitney.
Although it was spring, a thick layer of snow blanketed the trail head. At the Whitney Portal campground, a waterfall had become a cascade of ice. The A-frame Whitney Portal Store, where hikers carbo-load on pancakes the size of Frisbees, was closed for the season, but it would be packed again in a few months. And I was told that bright green and yellow leaves would border the cascade by the time the spring thaw started splashing over the black granite slabs. The smell of pancakes and pine trees would fill the air. \o7
At Lone Pine, take Whitney Portal Road 13 miles west to the Whitney Portal campground. Mt. Whitney Ranger Station, (760) 876-6200\f7
2. Alabama Hills
Giant, worm-like creatures are tunneling under the desert, gobbling up the simple folks of a small Nevada mining town. Sure, the premise to the 1990 horror movie "Tremors" was laughable, but the location was perfect. The Alabama Hills near Lone Pine cover 30,000 acres of desert, festooned with Dr. Seuss-world rock formations. Even without special effects, these rocks look like molten monsters, granite boils and bulbous faces, the result of a cataclysmic uplifting more than 100 million years ago and shaped by centuries of wind, rain and snow.
More than 400 movies and television shows, including 1939's "Gunga Din" and 1960's "Hell Bent for Leather" have been filmed here. I didn't recognize any backdrops, but I spotted a few places ideal for an ambush.
\o7Take Whitney Portal Road, west from U.S. 395 in Lone Pine and turn right on Movie Road. \f7
3. Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum
of Lone Pine Film History
The only real night life in Lone Pine -- besides a couple of saloons -- is at the local film museum. I pulled into town on a Thursday night and found a crowd gathered for a showing of "North to Alaska," starring John Wayne. Unfortunately, the projector broke before the show started.
I took in the exhibits of movie costumes, posters and props, including swords from "Gunga Din," Fatty Arbuckle's belt from "The Round-Up," a Fender guitar designed for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, a life-size stagecoach and, my favorite, a killer earthworm from "Tremors."
\o7701 S. Main St., Lone Pine; (760) 876-9909.
4. Season's Restaurant
The California Beef Council named Season's one of the top 31 beef restaurants in the state. If eateries were ranked by the views, Season's would be near the top of the list. At sunset, I found a booth near the entrance. I was tempted to order a Mt. Whitney -- coffee with brandy, amaretto, peach schnapps and whipped cream. Instead, I asked for a cold beer and a steak and watched clouds swirl and envelop the famous jagged peak as the sky darkened.
\o7206 S. Main St., Lone Pine; (760) 876-8927.
5. Dow Hotel
Since the 1920s, the Dow Hotel in Lone Pine and, later, the adjacent Dow Villa Motel, have hosted stars like Wayne, Rogers, Gene Autry, Errol Flynn and Robert Mitchum, who worked on films in the nearby Alabama Hills. The accommodations range from a single room with a communal bathroom down the hall to a suite with a whirlpool tub, a wet bar and a plasma-screen TV. Hollywood still loves this place. When a movie production is in town, the Dow gets the booking.
\o7310 S. Main St., Lone Pine; (760) 876-5521.
6. Manzanar National Historic Site